The Obama administration warned Tuesday that Maryland and other states that drain into the Chesapeake Bay face federal sanctions, including roadblocks to growth, if they fail to meet new cleanup goals - though federal officials said they're counting on not having to wield the rod.
Environmental activists, in turn, questioned the administration's resolve to do what is needed to restore the bay in the wake of the states having repeatedly failed to meet cleanup goals and compliance deadlines during the past 26 years.
In a long-awaited announcement that had been seen as a test of whether the Obama administration was serious about the bay cleanup, the EPA sent a letter Tuesday to Maryland, the District of Columbia and the five other states in the bay watershed outlining the potential consequences of failure.
Shawn M. Garvin, EPA's Mid-Atlantic regional administrator, said federal officials were confident that states would "meet the challenges" of tightening regulations and spending more on cleanup. But just in case, he said, the agency outlined a series of actions it might take, including:
•Blocking needed wastewater permits for new or existing businesses or sewage treatment plants.
•Requiring greater pollution reductions from existing industries and sewage plants to offset runoff from development.
•Placing strings on or "redirecting" federal grants for cleaning up water pollution.
"The idea of this is ensuring accountability," Garvin said in a telephone news conference. "We're not looking to rattle the saber just to rattle the saber." He said EPA officials want the threat of sanctions to serve as a "backstop" to motivate state officials to do what is needed to restore the bay.
EPA officials had promised to spell out the sanctions for state inaction in May, when President Barack Obama issued an executive order directing federal agencies to take the lead in the bay cleanup. Since it began in 1983, it has been a largely voluntary, multistate collaboration, but that has begun to change. Lawsuits by environmental groups have prodded the EPA to begin drawing up a "pollution diet" limiting discharge in every river and stream in the 64,000-square-mile watershed, and Obama's order signaled a stronger federal role.
Dawn Stoltzfus, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said state officials are committed to the cleanup effort but hope to get more federal funds to help reduce the nitrogen from fertilizer, sewage and air pollution that is fouling the bay.
But activists expressed dismay Tuesday at the lack of specificity in the EPA sanctions. They criticized Garvin's statement that states would not face consequences if they miss any of the short-term "milestones" they set in May when pledging to redouble efforts to restore the bay during the next two years.
"We remain unconvinced that this demonstrates a new EPA approach to enforcing the Clean Water Act," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The Annapolis-based group sued the EPA a year ago for not pushing the bay cleanup more aggressively, but put the case on hold after the Obama administration vowed to play a stronger role. Now, Baker said, the group might renew its effort to get a federal judge to impose a cleanup plan.
Howard Ernst, a political scientist at the Naval Academy, called the EPA announcement "all teeth and no bite."
"By my count, this is the fifth time in less than one year that Obama's EPA has declared that there MIGHT be consequences for states missing Chesapeake Bay goals," Ernst wrote in an e-mail.
Garvin insisted that federal officials are serious about imposing sanctions, but he acknowledged that the government has long had the authority and has rarely invoked it. The EPA has objected to 13 water discharge permits in the five-state Mid-Atlantic region this year, with only two of them related to the bay restoration, according to a spokesman.
Others, though, found the EPA threats sobering.
Les Knapp, legislative director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said local governments are in a bind, facing growing pressure to do more to reduce pollution while struggling with reduced revenue because of the recession.
And Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House Republican leader from St. Mary's County, said he believes the U.S. government is overstepping its constitutional limits in trying to dictate state policies.